Saturday, February 4, 2012

Change of Pace Photo



A curtain of palms

Steve Jobs, Genius and asshole

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, racing through almost six hundred pages in two days. 

It is a riveting history of our own time, at least one facet of it. I'm old enough to remember Apple II's on a desk at school. And here I am writing on an iPad 2.

It is also fascinating as a business history. Even in a company that turns out to be (eventually) as successful as Apple, the amount of internal resistance and bickering and nastiness and infighting is remarkable. Getting anything useful done seems to elicit fierce resistance.

And I really enjoyed the story of how Toy Story came together at Pixar, partly because of the teleological overtone:

The idea that John Lasseter pitched was called “Toy Story.” It sprang from a belief, which he and Jobs shared, that products have an essence to them, a purpose for which they were made. If the object were to have feelings, these would be based on its desire to fulfill its essence. The purpose of a glass, for example, is to hold water; if it had feelings, it would be happy when full and sad when empty. The essence of a computer screen is to interface with a human. The essence of a unicycle is to be ridden in a circus. As for toys, their purpose is to be played with by kids, and thus their existential fear is of being discarded or upstaged by newer toys. 

But Jobs comes across as one of the meanest, nastiest individuals of recent history as well. He abandoned and denied his daughter for years, pointlessly insulted people, got thrown out of his own company because people had no confidence in him. He succeeded despite his lack of tact, not because of it. 

He had tremendous ability to focus, but it also meant he could disengage and fail to deal with issues.

Jobs’s intensity was also evident in his ability to focus. He would set priorities, aim his laser attention on them, and filter out distractions. If something engaged him—the user interface for the original Macintosh, the design of the iPod and iPhone, getting music companies into the iTunes Store—he was relentless. But if he did not want to deal with something—a legal annoyance, a business issue, his cancer diagnosis, a family tug—he would resolutely ignore it.

Did the meanness work?

The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did, at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible. And he created a corporation crammed with A players. 


I do buy into his belief that if you start having lots of B players in an organization, they start hiring Cs and before long you are ruined. You need really good people. But he had good people spend months refitting factories just to change the color of the assembly machines. That was just crazy tyranny. 


So what was it?

Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. He was, indeed, an example of what the mathematician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead.   

That is something. But it came with a lot of petulance and idiosyncrasy. He had the weirdest diet habits, like long fasts and eating nothing but carrots for three weeks, then abandoning it for some other vegan affectation. He seems very screwed up. 

Isaacson gives the last word to Jobs. This is nice as a philosophy of life,  however:

Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how—because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me. 

So most of us are not billionaires who transform entire industries at a time. And that's OK. The people closest to Jobs often paid the price.

Thinking too fast, and remembering too little

I'm discussing Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

He finishes by explaining he has demonstrated three main tensions in the book - two characters, two species, and two selves.
The two characters were the intuitive System 1, which does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can within its limited resources. The two species were the fictitious Econs, who live in the land of theory, and the Humans, who act in the real world. The two selves are the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and makes the choices.

So he demonstrates how the "fast" and subconscious System 1 often jumps to conclusions or uses whatever evidence is immediately to hand, and the "slow" deliberate System 2 is often too lazy to overrule it.

System 1 - the fast, subconscious thought which is always turned on - also likes to substitute easier questions for harder ones, which it then answers with self-confident gusto.  
This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.
This isn't a matter of simplifying into a parsimonious model, either. We typically don't even notice if our immediate intuitive mind has decided to jump to a conclusion. Remembering reference classes, checklists and slower, more methodical decision-making can help - a little.
He shows the homo economicus model of traditional economics is empirically without foundation. Indeed, humans cannot be rational in many situations. If rationality is making consistent choices, we typically fail to do so  if the choices are framed differently. The self which experiences life at the time is also different from the self which remembers experience. The remembering self does not realy think about duration of an experience, but only the peak feeling and the end-point.
The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource, but the remembering self ignores that reality. The neglect of duration combined with the peak-end rule causes a bias that favors a short period of intense joy over a long period of moderate happiness. 

All the ways you can go wrong

Frankly, the book makes you feel queasy, because even if you know the pitfalls it is still difficult to avoid making mistakes. He has multiple examples of experts stumbling on their own expertise, and basic errors in consistency and judgment. Kahneman himself says he still falls into many of the traps. But he hopes a vocabulary to talk about the kind of mistakes people make, including the increasingly familiar terms like availability heuristic or prospect theory. If nothing else, it is a checklist to avoid making some errors - although he laments that psychology students typically do not learn to apply what they learn in the classroom to their decisions outside it.

It is an argument above all for a certain humility about our abilities.
A recurrent theme of this book is that luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome. Our story was no exception.

The problem with expert judgment

It's a Saturday afternoon, and G and I are sitting drinking espresso and tea. 

I finished reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slowearlier this week. Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.  G and I saw him speak at CUNY a month or two ago. In fact, there is now of a video of that encounter with David Brooks, and it is well worth watching for his funny, humane but insightful remarks.

It is a long, very smart book which sums up much of a life's work on people's mistakes in judgment,  so I am just going to pick out a few things. And here's the shock:

Expert judgement, um, sucks

He has a long series of chapters on when you can trust expert judgement. 

Pretty much never when it comes to picking stocks, he says, although that is not a surprise after three decades of academic debates over various versions of efficient market theory.  And very rarely when it comes to economic or long-term political forecasts, he says, especially by "foxes" who try to relate everything to one big model. That also is familiar to me from Philip Tetlock's book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? 

But what really struck me was a discussion of a long tradition of research which originated in psychology and medicine in the 1950s. Paul Meehl compared the performance of doctors in clinical diagnosis with simple algorithms with 5 or 6 factors. 

The simple algorithms beat expert judgement almost every time.

Not surprisingly, Meehl’s book provoked shock and disbelief among clinical psychologists, and the controversy it started has engendered a stream of research that is still flowing today, more than fifty years after its publication. The number of studies reporting comparisons of clinical and statistical predictions has increased to roughly two hundred, but the score in the contest between algorithms and humans has not changed. About 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algorithms. The other comparisons scored a draw in accuracy, but a tie is tantamount to a win for the statistical rules, which are normally much less expensive to use than expert judgment. No exception has been convincingly documented. 

Clearly this is a problem for much of the professional classes, so it may not be entirely surprising it is not a better known result.


Why are experts inferior to algorithms? One reason, which Meehl suspected, is that experts try to be clever, think outside the box, and consider complex combinations of features in making their predictions. Complexity may work in the odd case, but more often than not it reduces validity. Simple combinations of features are better. Several studies have shown that human decision makers are inferior to a prediction formula even when they are given the score suggested by the formula! They feel that they can overrule the formula because they have additional information about the case, but they are wrong more often than not. 

There is one silver lining in this black cloud for professionals, though. When there are stable regularities intuition may still be very useful. Kahneman discusses a long exchange with another researcher, Gary Klein. Klein studies the intuitive ability of fire chiefs or ER professionals, who may actually have valid and substantive insight. 

The issue may turn on pattern recognition (but only if there really are patterns):

The model of intuitive decision making as pattern recognition develops ideas presented some time ago by Herbert Simon, perhaps the only scholar who is recognized and admired as a hero and founding figure by all the competing clans and tribes in the study of decision making. I quoted Herbert Simon’s definition of intuition in the introduction, but it will make more sense when I repeat it now: “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.

So when can you trust expert judgment, or rely on intuition?

Remember this rule: intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment.  ... If the environment is sufficiently regular and if the judge has had a chance to learn its regularities, the associative machinery will recognize situations and generate quick and accurate predictions and decisions. You can trust someone’s intuitions if these conditions are met. 



Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Why you won't quit your job"

This blog post on the Harvard Business Review site has generated a huge trail of interesting comments.


As job dissatisfaction rates climb up towards 80%, it's pretty safe to conclude that many of you reading this would rather be doing something else professionally. But in my interviews, I was surprised to find that people's inability to quit their current jobs had nothing to do with the perceived riskiness of their new professions, the fear of unemployment if job options fell through, or even how well they had defined their proposed new career step.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jonathan Haidt

Here's a fascinating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (h/t AL Daily) about Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist who has come up several times in this blog's project. Haidt spends several days talking to Occupy Wall St protestors.

To Haidt, the evolution of morality can help make sense of modern political tribes like this one. And in that evolution, the big question is this: How did people come together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship?

Morality is the glue, he answers. Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive. A big part of Haidt's moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. 

He got interested in the topic, he says, partly because he was a highly partisan Democrat who could not understand why Kerry had not connected with voters. 

What he found changed his view. He tries to help Democrats understand much of the country has different moral intuitions

That's a mild critique, but Haidt gets tougher in memoranda he has sent to liberal politicians and think tanks. He writes that politics, like religion, binds people together "to pursue moral ideals and defend sacred values." The value that liberals revere is defending the oppressed. But their devotion to victims blinds them to other concerns. They alienate with "a thin and tolerant morality that gives most Americans vertigo." And they often commit "sacrilege," making it easy for opponents "to mobilize moralistic outrage." For example, they trounce authority by backing abortion without parental consent.

He hasn't had much success.

So far Haidt hasn't had much luck interesting political types in his ideas. He reached out to Democratic politicians in his home state of Virginia, like Mark Warner and Tom Perriello, as well as to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group tightly wired to the White House. But folks in Washington strike Haidt as too fixated on dodging daily bullets to think about the long-term future of liberalism. The few political people who gave him any time seemed more interested in tapping behavioral science for fund raising, or simply too busy to engage with his ideas.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Alain de Botton's new book

 The Guardian talks to Alain de Botton about his new book, Religion for Atheists (which will have to go on my reading list).


Can't society get to where De Botton wants it to go without plundering religion? He argues not: "Politicians want people to be nice neighbours but the tools at their disposal are just the tools of modern liberal society, which are nothing." What about the Tories' notion of a big society? "They're sitting in the cockpit and they haven't got the buttons."

Religions, he thinks, have the buttons and know how to use them. ..His strong point is that religion never lost faith in using culture to improve vulnerable, childlike souls. It understands, he contends, human frailties and how to work on them better than godless polities. He's at his most bracing when he proposes wholesale educational reform, suggesting that universities' humanities departments should be overhauled to do what John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold hoped for them, namely to instil wisdom.

Fairness sounds better than equality

Stanley Fish argues in the NYT that Obama is increasingly talking about fairness because it sounds better than equality.

President Obama’s choice to emphasize fairness rather than equality in the State of the Union address makes good political sense. Although equality is the central concern of the Occupy Wall Street movement, focused as it is on income disparities, Americans are at least ambivalent toward equality as a primary value. .. 


Fairness is a better mantra than equality, for it rests on a notion of formal equality — everyone should be treated alike — rather than a notion of substantive equality — everyone should have the same stuff. Fairness, rather than undermining the American virtues of self-realization and entrepreneurial advancement, establishes a framework within which these virtues can be exercised. Fairness doesn’t tamper with the rules or skew them in the direction of the unemployed or impoverished: it just insists that the rules be followed and that no one gets to go to the head of the line if it is not his turn.


I still have serious doubts about this, as I've said before. Fairness (and justice) are not just about procedural fairness, but about who deserves what. And the second part usually gets truncated in the liberal use of the word. You get the moral force of the word while not delivering the goods in full. Fairness is not about substantive equality but it is about substantive outcomes.


Think about a murderer who is freed by the court on a technicality, say the prosecutor filled in a form incorrectly or missed a deadline. It might be procedurally fair. Impartial rules were followed. But most people would feel queasy about calling it a fair outcome.

Even Periclean Athens behaved foolishly.

I watched a PBS documentary on Netflix about the catastrophes that befell Periclean Athens. Then yesterday I was wandering around the Met museum, looking at the new Renaissance Portraits Exhibition, the new galleries in the American wing, and then the Classical galleries on the way out.

The classical galleries got me thinking. Consider the clarity and glory of classical Athens at the peak of its achievement. Here was a city that had led the defeat of the terrifying Persian Empire. Athens had become spectacularly wealthy from trade and tribute, and had just finished building the Parthenon. It essentially invented drama and phiIosophy and science. It was in the most remarkable cultural efflorescence there has ever been. 

And within a few years they are huddling inside their walls, dying of the plague while the Spartans ravage the countryside and farms around the city. 

The Parthenon was substantially finished by 438 BC. The plague struck in 430, during the long siege of the city as people crowded inside the walls. The Parthenon was only eight years old when it was surrounded by sickness and hunger and defeat. 

According to Thucydides, morality and social order broke down, as people thought they would soon die anyway, regardless of whether they did right or wrong.

The Peloponnesian war turns Greek against Greek and grinds on for thirty years. Pericles falls ill and dies. The city lurches into the military catastrophe of the Syracusan expedition. Socrates is found guilty of corrupting the young, and executed.

And so I was looking at the vases and other art from Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and thinking about how such talent also coexisted - or declined - into such idiocy and tragedy. The spectacular glory of Periclean Athens didn't last. 

I also wondered around the Late Roman displays, over by the south-facing windows. A great ungainly, ugly bronze of a late Roman emperor, Trebonianus Gallus, stands there, alongside a sign talking about the chaos of his times, dislocation and breakdown under the Severan Empires. He ruled two years before being killed by his troops in murky circumstances. He looks bloated and crude and misshapen and ugly. 

It makes the idea of a morality pill more attractive, for all the concerns about free will it raises. Then again, someone would start developing amorality pills to give them an edge in power. It is difficult to get people to work well together for long. I'm feeling that at work right now too.

A "morality pill?"

Peter Singer, the famous ethical philosopher, writes in the NYT (with one of his researchers):

If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it?

Or would it be a dystopia without free will?